Toward Criteria for Evaluating the Literary Merit of Constraint-Driven
Literature and Being a Book Review of Eunoia and Ella Minnow
William Gillespie 2002
Clarification: The Oulipo—“the sewing circle of potential
literature”—holds monthly meetings in Paris to discuss writing
experiments along the intersection of literature and mathematics. I
have been trying to learn more about them for eight years. Although
most of the literature written by members of the Oulipo is in French,
the writing techniques they champion—formal constraints—can
be applied across languages. As a result, their research has helped
to inspire a small but international community of writers sharing compositional
techniques. As writing under constraint is counterintuitive and often
genuinely difficult, sometimes Oulipian works are described as though
they were athletic or gymnastic feats.
The Olympics is some kind of international sporting event I saw
on TV a couple of times when I was a kid.
The title of this essay, then, refers to an imaginary international
literary sporting event in which a community of virtuosic Oulipian writers
get together to share their research. Ideally, the Oulipics would be
less a competition than an exhibition; however, for the purposes of
this essay (written in the context of innumerable glowing reviews for
Ella Minnow Pea that falsely assumed or implied that Dunn had
invented the lipogram), I am assuming that the books in question are
already locked in a competition (for recognition, readers, reviews,
awards, and sales) and I wish to reframe that competition as a contest
of writing rather than publicity.
In the promotional materials for Ella Minnow Pea, the editor
states that it is the first book he has ever acquired before finishing.
To my ear, this doesn't constitute the ringing endorsement it is meant
to be. You can't judge the value of a novel without reading its ending,
but you don't have to read a single word to be impressed by the fact
of its being a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable. But
the techniques used in Ella Minnow Pea were not invented by Mark
Dunn, they have a history.
A book with an typographic constraint is uncommon, to be sure, but
is the constraint a literary device and when is it a gimmick? Olympic
gymnasts are awarded points both on the physical difficulty of their
as well as their grace in executing them. Oulipian books need to be evaluated
on their constraint and its application, but just as important are
style and content as well. Those of us who believe in the value of constrained
works as serious literature need to be sure we evaluate such works
their literary merit.
Ella Minnow Pea:
A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable
by Mark Dunn
205 pages. $22.00
by Christian Bök
Coach House Books
100 pages. $16.95
|WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY CONSTRAINT?
||For the purpose of this essay I will define
constraint as a writing procedure that explicitly rules out
certain words altogether, or at certain times.
|WHAT IS THE CONSTRAINT?
||Ella Minnow Pea is progressively
lipogrammatic: as the book progresses, the author's alphabet is
disallowing more and more letters. Unlike other lipogrammatic novels
(La Disparitions/A Void, Gadsby)
which manage to adhere to proper grammar and mispelling, in Ella
Minnow Pea words are not always spelled or used properly.
The book begins with a full alphabet. The lipogrammatic progression
slow and tentative and seems designed to challenge the author as
little as possible. The letters are dropped in an order that
reverse of the English frequency alphabet (infrequent letters are
dropped first): Z, Q, J, D, K, F, B, C, V, U, X, Y, H, G, A,
R, S, T, W. When the book is a quarter over, the author has only
dropped the letter Z. When the book is half-over, the author
has dropped D,
J, K, Q, and Z, none of which are very frequently-occurring letters
in English. When the author finally drops A, E, I, R, S, and
at once), the book is approximately 97% over and the full constraint
(using only LMNOP) is used only for 7 lines. In addition to misspellings,
there are also moments when excluded letters are used anywaymoments
framed in the story as disobedient characters using forbidden letters.
||Eunoia is an exhaustive univocalic
novel: there is one section for each of the five vowels AEIOU; in
each section no other vowels may be used. Words are spelled properly
and sentences are grammatical. There are a few closing pieces that
follow mostly related constraints, which, for the purpose of this
essay I will consider appendices, the book proper being the section
entitled Eunoia. You could describe this book as also
progressively lipogrammatic because univocalic writing
is lipogrammatic: by limiting the writer to a single vowel it purposefully
excludes the four other vowels. (Y is suppressed in Eunoia)
So each of the five sections of Eunoia is a lipogram on four
|IS THE CONSTRAINT DIFFICULT TO USE?
||What Dunn did was not difficult. There
exist two lipogrammatic novels in the English language that do not
use the the most common letter E at all. Dunn omitted the letter E
for only a few lines. The progression of the progressive lipogram
was slow, easy, and despite this he allowed himself to cheat in various
ways, many of which demonstrated questionable style (goofy phonetic
misspellings and bad grammar). This is analogous to an Olympic gymnast
slowly crawling from one end of the balance beam to the other, and
awkwardly dismounting when three quarters of the way there.
||What Bök did was difficult. For the
purposes of comparison, let's take the two most common words in the
English language: the and and. Dunn could
freely use the word the for the first 9/10ths of the book
and and for the first 7/20ths of the book. Bök was
able to use each of the two words the and and
for 2/7ths of the book and never both at the same time. Bök's
book is shorter which made his feat arguably easier but his writing
is stronger which makes it arguably more difficult. What these percentages
show is less a measure of comparative difficulty and more the author's
willingness to challenge herself.
|WAS THE CONSTRAINT A GOOD IDEA FOR A BOOK?
Yes! The constraint is an excellent
idea for a book, particularly a novel. The progressive omission
of letters has the potential to enhance the progression of the story.
While the constraint will reduce the allowable vocabulary, at the
beginning of the book the vocabulary is unconstrained, and so the
author can use any word she wants, but for a limited time. Thus
the author is free to set up any situation she likes. Given this,
I would say that Dunn's constraint does not reduce the potential
for a compelling story the way, say, an extended palindrome would.
I might add that the epistolary form offered the author unused avenues
to enhance the story while obeying the constraint by including types
of documents other than personal letters. However, the passages
in Ella Minnow Pea are all written in more or less the same
verbose and cumbersome style.
Yes, although not as good an idea as
was the constraint for Ella Minnow Pea. Dunn had a better
idea for a book but was blown away by Bök's execution. Bök's
idea would mean that each of the five sections would have an exclusive
vocabulary. No word used in the first section could be reused in
the fifth. This rules out any direct continuity or incremental progression,
diminishing the potential for the book to have, say, an explicit
narrative or conceptual development. You could not track the progress
of a particular character or concept unless it changed its name
at least four times. In fact, the five sections are arranged in
alphabetic order (by vowel) presumably because the author wanted
them in alphabetic order, not necessarily (but possibly) because
that was the best possible sequence for the reader. The closure
is formal and not narrative.
Eunoia is a great idea for a piece of writing for reasons
unrelated to consistency or narrative progression. For one thing,
by including each of the five vowels, it is exhaustivemost
univocalic words in English are used somewhere, making Eunoia
a sort of semi-indexed reference book. Also, univocalic writing
has great potential to be musical because the use of a single
limits the number of vowel sounds, making the language resonant
with assonance and rhyme.
|WAS THE CONSTRAINT EXECUTED WELL?
Oulipic writing implies an effort
to use proper spelling, proper grammar, and, most importantly,
of literary quality. Without this effort, the constraint cannot
create extraordinary language. So as an Oulipic judge I consider
such shortcuts as bad grammar and spelling to be cheating, unless
done in an artful fashion. One might validly pose the counterargument
that these techniques are appropriate for the epistolary novel
at hand because the writing is, after all, that of characters
suffering from this unusual constraint unexpectedly in the story.
Well, I would counter, if that is true then this book doesn't
belong in the Oulipics because the point of writing under constraint
is not just to prevent familiar language, but to invoke new linguistic
formulations. And if Ella Minnow Pea is not an Oulipian
work (as its subtitle seems to promise), then it is resigned to
novelty, gift, or humor book, and not literature.
The author's job here is to write well in the voice of the characters
under the extraordinary constraint and to make it plausible
that the characters would write well under the constraint. After
all, there already exist two lipogrammatic novels in the English
A Void) as well as progressively-constrained novels (Alphabetic
Africa). What would have made Ella Minnow Pea noteworthy
would have been what makes any other novel noteworthy: exquisite
writing. As it is, its reputation rests on it having an (admittedly
well-chosen) variation on a literary technique that, according
Perec, dates back to antiquity.
|The writing is dense and lyrical and the
images fantastically imaginative. Similarities between each of the
five sections in subject matter, style, pacing, and even duration,
heighten the continuity and in so doing bring the necessary differences
between the five sections (such as how they sound) into vivid contrast.
There is never any sense that the author is suffering or staggering
or indeed blocked or inhibited at all. An Oulipian is a runner who
sprints faster when there are hurdles on the track.
|IS THE WRITING BEAUTIFUL?
No. The writing style is verbose and
stilted, like an imitation of Victorian prose. This style does
noticeably waver even though the book is composed of letters written
by different characters experiencing increasing amounts of tension.
the tragedy of the story of Nollop is nicely counterpointed to
the whimsical premise upon which the tragedy rests, I came away
reading the book with nothing like an insight into humanity or
a residual tingling from an especially well-wrought passage.
IS THE BOOK WELL-COMPOSED? IN OTHER
WORDS: DOES IT CHANGE AS IT PROGRESSES OR IS IT FLAT? IS THERE A
The story of Nollop shows a definite
movement, even if it proves at the end to be reversible. That
die or are displaced in ways that are not cute and funny demonstrates
that the book is capable of seriousness. There is even something
that resembles foreshadowing to the attentive reader (the 32-letter
sentence that resolves the story's conflict is sneakily revealed
early on in the book). It is fair to say that the tension of the
story escalates in a motion parallel to the movement of the constraint,
which is a noteworthy feat.
|Yes and no. The book is well-composed because
of the author's efforts to bring parallels to the five sections. The
movement, however, is more formal then thematic or narrative. As thrilling
as the prose is, it feels more like a collection of short stories
then a novel.
|IS THE CONSTRAINT RELEVANT TO THE BOOK'S
Yes. The constraint takes place on
the story level. It is the characters, as well as the author, who
must write lipogrammatically. While this sort of direct connection
between a book's constraint and its subject matter is admirable,
the premise of the story is so contrived and the characters so flat
that this connection isn't as meaningful as it could be.
|No. Although certain of the pages (such
as the opening) refer to the constraint, I cannot say that what happens
in the book is analogous to the formal structure. The constraint filters
the language and the author shapes it.
|IS THIS THE LAST BOOK LIKE THIS THAT NEEDS
TO BE WRITTEN?
No. In this book, the constraint is
a terrible thing with dire consequences. The story of Ella Minnow
Pea reflects the popular misconception that writing under constraint
is damaged, limited, impeded writing, and this becomes an excuse
for Dunn not even to bother working toward a rippingly good climax.
But what if the application of the progressive lipogram had desirable
results? What if Dunn and the characters welcomed the opportunity
to write in ways they had never before written? And what if the
progressive lipogram were applied with the same sort of rigor Bök
uses? Then this book would have at least 26 sections, each of which
would make a reasonable effort to be scintillating.
|Yes. Eunoia uses its constraint
exhaustively (the author claims to use 98% of the available vocabulary)
and is, I would say, unsurpassably well-written. In terms of beauty,
this writing can hold its own against any text yet penned. Univocalic
writing should certainly continue to be used, but I would be hesitant
to write a progressively univocalic book-length work in the shadow